For centuries, people have thought that a woman’s virginity could be proven by her hymen. But what even is a hymen? And what does it mean to “pop your cherry”?
By Cody Smith
In eighth grade, a rumor floated around my classroom that a guy on the football team had “popped his girlfriend’s cherry.” I had heard the phrase before, but I didn’t understand what it meant. I figured there was bleeding involved, but beyond that, I just knew the story felt scandalous.
After asking my friends, many of whom had vaginas themselves, for more information about what this rumor entailed, I realized I wasn’t alone in my confusion. None of us really understood what had allegedly occurred between our classmates. In fact, the “cherry,” which is more formally known as the hymen, has been a major source of sexual misinformation for centuries.
The hymen is a piece of tissue that surrounds the vaginal opening, and this tissue can be torn or stretched by penetrative sex. There is no actual “popping” involved. This tissue can be filled with blood vessels, which is why the hymen might bleed if torn. Historically, people believed that a woman’s virginity could be verified by examining her vagina to check whether the hymen was intact, meaning it hadn’t been torn or stretched by sexual activity, though modern science has discredited that myth. In reality, the diversity of hymens is endless! Even if they haven’t been stretched or torn, most hymens still don’t entirely cover the vaginal opening, which allows menstrual blood to flow. Some females are born with very little hymenal tissue at all. And actually, the hymen can be stretched or torn by a number of activities like horseback riding, inserting tampons, or even masturbating. A number of factors influence how painful it might be or how much bleeding might be present if the hymen is torn, but using a lubricant can help ease discomfort during intercourse or penetration (check out our page on lubricant for more information). Contrary to the popular trope, many females experience little discomfort during their first time — it varies for every individual.
Even in the 21st century, an “intact” hymen and the bleeding meant to accompany a woman’s first time carries cultural significance as a symbol of a woman’s virginity. This significance has made the “hymenoplasty” an increasingly popular surgical procedure in Europe for women of religious communities in which virginity is prized, particularly, but not solely, among young Muslim women in France. While there are no reliable statistics demonstrating just how popular this procedure is, many young women have had the procedure to “repair” their hymen and ensure that on their wedding night, they will bleed during intercourse so that their husbands will be satisfied that their new brides were virgins when they were married.
Women have also sought certificates of their virginity from medical professionals for their future husbands. In order to receive such a certificate, doctors examine the woman’s vagina to confirm the presence of an “intact” hymen. These examinations can be humiliating and invasive, especially if a test is enforced against a woman’s will. Despite centuries of men claiming the hymen is a reliable indicator of a woman’s virginity the fact of the matter is that it simply isn’t. The World Health Organization has stated that these virginity examinations “can not be supported scientifically or ethically.”
There are so many anatomical differences as well as experiences that could cause the hymen to tear aside from having sex. This misconception illustrates a long history of men claiming authority and knowledge over female anatomy and sexuality, leaving us with a lot of work to do in dispelling these myths. The value placed on “intact” hymens has allowed men to police female sexuality and virginity, which leaves many young people feeling ashamed of their bodies if their anatomy doesn’t align with this ideal (just search “hymen yahoo answers” on Google to find proof of this). By confronting this myth, we can try to alleviate the shame and policing to which young women are subjected.
Had my friends and I known all of this in eighth grade, we may have treated this piece of gossip with less ignorance and more respect.
Cody Smith is a Kylie Minogue lover. Sunscreen-obsessed. Native of Frederick County, Maryland. Tweeting insignificant opinions @cody_s_smith.